By MICK ROBERTS ©
YOUNG William Walker would have been looked on as a curiosity by his school mates at Bulli in the 1880s.
Although William was like most other adolescent boys growing-up in the mining community, he was looked at differently because he belonged to a Salvationist family – a new religious order that had arrived in town just prior to the infamous Bulli Mine disaster of March 23 1887.
William was just 10 years old when an explosion killed 81 men and boys in the colliery, no doubt reviving thoughts of when his own father tragically died in a mining accident in England when he was an infant.
William arrived in Sydney from Durham England with his mother Jane, siblings, and step-father James Metcalfe in 1879, making their way to the Illawarra the following year.
I spoke with Gwen Hoskin in 2004 on the eve of a family reunion at the Salvation Army Training College in Bexley to celebrate the legacy of William Walker’s 50 grandchildren, 133 great grandchildren, 148 great great grandchildren and one great great great grandchild.
Gwen Hoskin was 82 at the time of the interview. She’s the niece of Keith and Ruth Walker, arguably the most identifiable Salvationists in the Woonona Bulli area during the latter part of the 20th century.
Born in Woonona in 1922, Keith ‘Disha’ Walker was a coal miner, who in his retirement became well-known throughout the district for his work in the ‘hotel ministry’. He and his wife were regular visitors to pubs and clubs, not for a drink, but to rattle their wooden collection box, and hand-out the ‘War Cry’ – the official newspaper of the Salvation Army.
Quietly spoken, Keith always had time for a yarn with the hard drinking men who frequented the bars of the local watering holes, while collecting for the Salvation Army.
Keith and Ruth’s children become third generation Salvationists, carrying on the strong influence the Walker family have had from the beginnings of the Woonona/Bulli citadel.
A Salvation Army crusade arrived in the Illawarra in 1885, marching the streets in uniformed brass bands and giving lectures in the region’s halls.
They were looked on as a curiosity, and like most new and different religions, were shunned by conservative communities. The Town and Country Journal reported on June 26 1886:
SALVATION ARMY – A squad of the “Salvation Army” is now stationed in Wollongong, and commenced operations against the enemy. The services seem to be highly attractive to the larrikin element, who congregate in large crowds, and indulge in good humored “chaff” at the expense of the Salvationists. They intend to take possession of the town for several months, but I suppose that will depend in a great measure upon the amount of support they receive.
The Salvos were in the Illawarra to stay, and first set-up shop in the Wollongong Temperance Hall in Crown Street. They later relocated to the Exchange Hall opposite today’s Wollongong Town Hall, and regularly gathered for street lectures and concerts, much to the chagrin of authorities and those uncomfortable with the new form of religion. The Town and Country Journal reported on Saturday 31 July 1886:
SALVATION ARMY – On Monday the Salvation Army located here [in Wollongong], consisting of four members, were charged before the local police court with impeding the traffic in Crown-street on Sunday, 18th instant. From the evidence it appeared that the army was marching down the street, followed by a number of persons. One of them was playing a cornet, the others were singing and waving handkerchiefs. Mr. Muir, a solicitor, and another gentleman were riding up the street. Muir’s horse shied, and he had some difficulty in getting him past the crowd. Instead of stopping the march, and desisting playing and singing, it was alleged on behalf of the prosecution that the noise was increased. The Salvationists swore that they were afraid Muir would ride over them, as they had previously been annoyed in that manner. Several other witnesses also gave similar testimony, but the Bench by a majority decided to fine each of the defendants 2s 6d, which amount was paid by the prosecuting attorney, Mr. Muir, and several others.
The Salvation Army annexed Bulli in June 1887, renting the Black Diamond Hotel’s assembly room, four blocks north of today’s old Denmark Hotel on the Prince’s Highway. Their brass bands, parading the streets, were looked down upon by some and Wollongong Council unsuccessfully tried to ban the practice in the late 1880s imprisoning marchers in the Belmore Basin prison. The Salvos persisted and eventually won the right to march the streets.
The Illawarra Mercury reported the Bulli corps was “making great progress” in 1888 and “if their comrades in Wollongong are not allowed to parade the streets with musical instruments, the ‘Army’ at Bulli make up for this denial.” The corps purchased the instruments of the defunct Bulli Brass Band and acquired the teaching services of the former band’s director Julius Ziems. “The soldiers are learning how to play music instead of making the discordant noises for which the Wollongong Salvationists have become notorious.”
One of these musicians was William Walker, who later met his future bride Selena Reeks at a Salvo’s meeting in the 1890s. They were married in 1901; Selena aged 21 and William 24, in a Salvation Army ceremony at his step-father’s residence in Russell Street Woonona.
Like his step-father, and his biological father, William became a coal miner.
The history of the Walker family could have been altered for all time in 1904 when William was scheduled to do a shift at the Bulli Colliery, but for an unknown reason, was unable to work.
His half brother, Bartholomew Metcalfe, also a miner, offered to do his shift and was killed by a rock fall.
William and Selena moved into a cottage “on the mountain at Bulli”, where they began a large family of 15 children.
Asked how difficult raising 15 children was Selina once said “no trouble at all when the older ones bring up the younger ones”.
Gwen Hosking recalled William and Selina’s six-room Bulli home when I interviewed her in 2004.
“The walls were lined with newspaper and there was no electricity so they used kerosene lamps and lanterns… There was a very large kitchen at the back where everyone used to congregate, especially when the whole family got together on special occasions… The homestead also consisted of several outside rooms. To the left of the homestead there was a room where the boys used to sleep and another room to the right, which was a huge washhouse.”
The family later moved into a house on Williams’ Estate, in the shadow of a grand old fig tree, near the present intersection of Hillcrest and Mountain Avenues at Woonona in the 1920s.
Gwen said the new home was much more luxurious than the old homestead. “You could see right out to sea from the veranda and they had electricity, a bathroom plus a phone. It was lovely to see them comfortable but I missed the old homestead…”
William and Selina’s boys, like their father, became musicians in the Woonona Salvation Army Band, playing the streets of local mining townships. At least six boys became coal miners, and two girls, and a boy, Salvation Army officers, as did several of the grandchildren and great grandchildren.
In his retirement William became a Sunday school teacher at Bellambi and continued as a devout member of their congregation until his death in 1962 aged 86. Selena died in 1964 aged 84.
Keith Walker died in 2009 aged 87, and his wife, Ruth, who was 81, passed away in 2014. Gwen Hoskin, now in her 90s, (2015) lives in Sydney.
Keith’s daughter, Valda Matheson tells me that her father was the last of the children of William Walker, one of the Illawarra’s first Salvationists.
In a sight rarely witnessed in Woonona, Keith Walker was given a full Salvation Army funeral with a band march and police escort from the Woonona citadel in Hillcrest Avenue along the main road to Campbell Street in 2009. From Campbell Street the band moved to the side of the road and the hearse continued through to the Wollongong Salvation Army citadel where a large service was held.
© Copyright Mick Roberts 2015.